WALLA WALLA - With a seven-man roster boasting a track record of shooting in the 70s, the Whitman College men's golf team is taking aim this spring at a top three finish in the final Northwest Conference standings.
"Finishing in the top three has been our goal from the time this group met for the first time last fall," long-time coach Peter McClure said.
"We have seven guys who have shown they can shoot in the 70s under tournament conditions, and that degree of quality depth is something I've never seen in my time at Whitman," McClure said.
"We know we have the ability to score low as a group. Our plan is to focus on maintaining a positive mental outlook when we're on the golf course. We want to stay loose and have fun and play the best we can on each and every hole."
McClure, who has been coaching golf at Whitman since 1993, takes five of his golfers to California next week for the three-day St. Paddy Day's Invitational, which the University of Redlands will host at East Valley Golf Club in Beaumont.
"This Spring Break trip will help us a lot," McClure said. "With any luck we'll get some good weather. The weather here in Walla Walla hasn't allowed us to spend much time on the course yet."
Peter Clark and Drew Raher, two sophomores who recently completed the varsity basketball season, are the two Whitman golfers not competing at next week's Redlands tournament.
Both Clark, who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Raher, who lives in San Francisco, will spend Spring Break at their homes, working on their golf games on their own.
"We'll get back together as a group in late March, play a few qualifying rounds and then decide which of our six guys will go to the NWC Spring Classic in early April," McClure said.
The 36-hole Spring Classic, slated for April 2-3 at The Links at Hawks Prairie in Lacey, Wash., is one of three tournaments that determine the final NWC standings.
The first of the three tournaments was the NWC Fall Classic, held late last October in windy, wet and cold conditions at a course in Redmond, Ore. Whitman finished in fifth place in the team scoring, although the Missionaries were within nine shots of second place after the first round.
"The weather conditions for the Fall Classic were bad, but the course was still playable," McClure said. "Regardless of the conditions, we expect to play as well and hard as we can. Our team motto - ‘Any Course, Any Time' - leaves no room for excuses."
After the Spring Classic, Whitman will host a one-day invitational on April 9 at Canyon Lakes in Kennewick. Later in the month (April 22-23), the Missionaries will host the 36-hole NWC Championships on the same course.
The two classic tournaments, fall and spring, combine to count for one-half the point totals that determine the final standings. The NWC Championships, which cap the regular season, counts for the other half.
The team that finishes atop the final point standings gets the NWC's automatic berth in the NCAA Division III national championship field.
"Placing fifth at the Fall Classic was disappointing for us," McClure says. "We know we can play a lot better than that. It would be great to win at least one of the last two conference tournaments, and we have the ability to do that.
"We have the depth to post a low team score in every round we play," he adds. "We have a team full of guys who can all go low."
Back to the lead the Missionaries this spring is senior Brian Barton, the most accomplished Whitman golfer of the past two decades.
"Brian has been an amazing part of our team," McClure says. "His golfing abilities, like his music abilities, are off the charts. He's done a tremendous job for us, and has been an inspiration for his teammates, in the way he has balanced his academics with his interests in golf and music."
Barton, in his second year as a team captain, is a threat to win any of the conference tournaments he enters, McClure says.
While Barton averaged 77 for his eight competitive rounds last fall, freshman Andrew Welch was close behind with a 78.
Welch, who played in a top-notch golfing program at Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., came to Whitman with a "very strong and refined game," McClure said.
"His game is strong in all areas, and from a mental standpoint he maintains a very positive outlook on the golf course," he said. "He doesn't hang onto a bad shot. He just moves on."
Welch shot 74-75-149 at last fall's North Idaho Invitational and he weathered the cold, wet conditions at the Fall Classic for a team-best 77-80-157. He was in third place after round one of the classic and then finished fifth.
Geoff Burks, a sophomore, gives Whitman a third golfer with the ability to shoot a low score on any given day.
Burks shot two rounds of 75 to place seventh at last fall's Whitman Invitational at Wine Valley. He also carded a round of 74 at the Linfield Invitational.
John Abercrombie, a junior, missed the fall semester while following in Barton's footsteps to study at St. Andrews.
As a sophomore, however, Abercrombie shot a handful of scores in the 70s, including a 76 during the NWC's Northern Colleges fall tournament. That 76 matches his best score from his freshman season.
Jon Standen, a freshman from Sisters, Ore., is the other newcomer on the roster this season.
"Jon underwent quite a growth spurt as he was finishing high school, and he's just now feeling more comfortable with how that affected his golf game," McClure says.
"He fully expects to raise his game to a higher level, and he expects to do that sooner rather than later."
Standen made his best showing last fall at the Whitman Invitational, shooting two rounds of 79, and at the Linfield Invitational, where he carded a 78.
Neither Clark nor Raher played golf last fall, concentrating instead on getting ready for the basketball season, but both players contributed to tournament scores as freshmen.
Clark shot a 76 in a North Idaho dual match during the 2009 fall semester. Raher posted his best score (78) last spring in a dual match against Whitworth.
"Both Peter and Drew are great athletes who give us a lot depth," McClure says. "Their potential to improve and lower their scores is probably greater than anyone else on the team."